While many know Philadelphia as the site of the first zoo in the United States, the story of the Philadelphia Aquarium, once among the largest in the world, is a less well-known part of the city’s history. Following the closure of the Fairmount Water Works plant in 1909, the site took on new life as home to an aquarium from 1911 to 1962. At the time, aquariums were a novel concept largely inspired by fishery exhibitions at the Chicago and St. Louis World’s Fairs in 1893 and 1904 respectively. After fifteen years of debate over the issue, the Philadelphia Aquarium was established by city ordinance and signed by Mayor John E. Reyburn on May 16, 1911. Following the ordinance, an initial sum of $1,500 was appropriated for the aquarium, which was designed to acquaint visitors with the habitats and activities of freshwater and saltwater fish, especially those native to Pennsylvania.
Under the leadership of William E. Meehan, the Philadelphia Aquarium opened its doors on Thanksgiving Day 1911 and initially featured nineteen small tanks set up in the old engine house of the Water Works. Over time, several of the site’s buildings were refitted to serve the aquarium’s purposes, including the mill houses and administrative offices, and consequently allowed the Philadelphia Aquarium to become one of the four largest aquariums in the world by 1929. In its first year of operation, the aquarium played host to over 260,000 visitors and also held a series of public lectures on marine life. Initially, much to the delight of visitors, the Water Works’ forebay housed seals and sea lions, though the practice was later discontinued when the animals became ill and the forebay was subsequently filled in to become Aquarium Drive. Additionally, the plant’s turbine and pump only supplied the aquarium’s water for a short time before city water was found to be purer and more beneficial for the fish than the water of the polluted Schuykill River.
In its early years, some of the aquarium’s creatures were also preserved for posterity and displayed at the Academy of Natural Sciences. According to the 1913 Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences, additions to the museum’s collection included a harbor seal, loggerhead turtle, and calico bass from the aquarium.
A few months after the aquarium opened, it officially became part of Fairmount Park, the municipal park system that oversees Philadelphia’s sixty-three neighborhood and regional parks. Unfortunately, under Fairmount Park, the aquarium struggled to maintain adequate funding over the course of its existence and, despite the efforts of dedicated advocates, closed in December 1962. Following the closure of the aquarium, the Fairmount Water Works briefly housed an indoor swimming pool, which also closed in 1973, and more recently has been used for banquets and public tours. In 1977, the Water Works was designated an ASME Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark and, after years of fundraising and repairs to the site, opened a new educational interpretative center in 2004. Through the interpretative center and these historic photographs on PhillyHistory.org, the Philadelphia Aquarium has regained its place as part of the storied history of the Fairmount Water Works and the city of Philadelphia.
W.E. Meehan, “Building an Aquarium for Philadelphia,” Transactions of American Fisheries Society 43 (1914): 179-181.
Jane Mork Gibson, “The Fairmount Water Works,” Bulletin, The Philadelphia Museum of Art 84 (Summer 1988): 40.
Charles Beardsley, “Input Output: Philadelphia Lights a Landmark,” Mechanical Engineering (March 2004): 68.